The way the world ends in Take Shelter is not in a flash of nuclear light or with the moon turning scarlet, but with lost jobs, mortgage foreclosures and medical insurance co-payments. It’s an apocalyptic thriller for our times, a film about the terrors of a life where there are no more financial certainties.
Directed by Jeff Nichols and starring Michael Shannon, Take Shelter is the sort of film that M Night Shyamalan might have made if he hadn’t given up on making good movies after The Sixth Sense more than 10 years ago. It is a superior suspense film animated by an almost unbearable sense of creeping dread.
Take Shelter draws us into the world of Curtis, a diligent, working-class father and husband living in a rural Ohio town. His lovely wife Samantha (played by Hollywood’s current “it” girl, Jessica Chastain) dotes on him and his deaf daughter Hannah, who is contented despite her impaired hearing. Life seems good for Curtis, but he still finds himself troubled by terrible dreams and hallucinations that foretell doom for his family and townsmen.
In his dreams, his co-workers attack him with pick axes and the docile, beloved family dog savages him in an inexplicable fit of rage. In his waking hours, he is tormented by biblical visions of birds flying in bizarre formations, lightning tearing the sky asunder and ominous clouds brewing on the horizon. Keeping these troubled delusions to himself, an isolated Curtis feels his grip on reality slipping.
He gets rid of the dog, takes a loan to renovate the tornado shelter in the family home’s yard, and uses equipment borrowed from work to create a refuge for his family. Is Curtis a visionary with a window into an upcoming apocalypse or he is a psychotic falling into the schizophrenia that claimed his mother’s sanity? Could it be that he is both utterly insane and prescient? The subtlety of Shannon’s performance and Nichols’ direction will keep you guessing until the very last frame.
Shannon is mesmerising as a devoted family man who cannot work out whether he is losing his mind or not. Though the actor earned his name for his unhinged performances in films and TV series such as Revolutionary Road and Boardroom Empire, here he tones down the crazy tics and bulging eyes in favour of quiet bewilderment.
Shannon’s haunted but stoic features and imposing height bring to mind Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster more than any of the loons and psychos of his more recent performances. Curtis is a decent and rational man confused by his own inability to sort hallucination from prophetic vision.
Chastain provides excellent support for Shannon as his loving wife, angered by his squandering of money needed for an ear implant operation for Hannah yet determined to help her husband find his way out of his foggy delusions. Chastain’s performance, coupled with her role in Tree of Life, will seal her reputation as one of the most talented actresses in Hollywood at the moment.
Take Shelter‘s broodingly beautiful cinematography finds disquiet in the naturalistic detail of Ohio’s clouds and landscapes, foreboding in the mundane details of small town kitchens and lounges. It is a film that taps into anxieties that are as real as the world news headlines and that builds its suspense by making us care about its characters. The film is also a surprisingly moving reflection on the nuclear family as a refuge from the troubles of the world.
Though it feels painfully slow in stretches — 20 minutes of editing would have done it a world of good — Take Shelter is highly recommended for lovers of smart, character-driven thrillers.